A house on fire: The Hook and Ladder celebrates its first anniversary

Wednesday, August 16, 2017 by Jim Walsh in Music

July 29 is a busy Saturday night in the land of 10,000 beats. Some 35,000 crowd into Target Field in downtown Minneapolis for faux-country bros Florida Georgia Line, another 2,500 gather at the Palace Theater in downtown St. Paul for Ryan Adams, and a live music docket as wide as the Mississippi stretches in between.

“There are probably 150 bars doing live music between us and St. Paul tonight,” says Chris Mozena, standing in the entryway the Hook and Ladder Theater and Lounge. “But I think it’s a relatively unique spot. We’re a nonprofit. We’re a venue, but we’re a community theater, so we’re definitely way more locally focused than some places that may have had a large local focus in previous years and generations.”

Doors have just opened, with a trickle of music fans making their way into a 123-year-old building that has, over the years, served as a fire station, a movie house, and, most recently, as Patrick’s Cabaret. Outside the sun sets over the dumpster in the alley behind the vacant hull that once housed Harriet Brewing on Minnehaha Avenue, just a shot away from the Minneapolis Police Department’s Third Precinct. Inside, dim lights and an all-enveloping pre-gig PA mix give the bar its unmistakable feel: an underground club, a cool place on a hot night, a classic speakeasy, a juke joint secluded from all the numbers and the hype.

A crowd of about 150 eventually gathers for the night’s punk-pop bill of Every Other Tuesday and the Magnolias. In the front lounge, the darkness is cut just slightly by four huge neon letters spelling out “MPLS” that Mozena procured from a pal at the League of Longfellow Artists, originally scored from the Maple Lanes bowling alley in Brainerd.

“It felt like home instantly,” says Hook regular Danny Contreras Jr., who takes to the chairs in front of the MPLS installation with acquaintance Mary Low for a photo op that’s become a staple for first-time visitors to the Hook. “Over the years I had grown comfortable and attached to venues like the Turf Club and Clown Lounge, Lee’s, Mayslack’s, and, of course, First Avenue and the Entry. My very first visits to the Hook and Ladder, I experienced that same sensation.”

Creating that sense of belonging has been key to the venue’s success. In a competitive live music scene, the Hook’s hook can be had at the bottom of its website: “Thank you for your support. Every ticket includes a $1 donation towards the upkeep of this historic venue. The Hook has the lowest and most transparent ticketing fees in town.”

The nonprofit model is gaining steam in Minneapolis, with the likes of the Cedar Cultural Center and the Warming House serving as models. Mozena thinks there’s room for another venue where the primary goals are paying artists and making audiences feel like a part of something—and it’s the Hook’s mostly volunteer staff and board that makes this possible.

“They’re enthusiastic, and they show up and they put time in,” Mozena says. “Like, next week we’ll finally have a cash machine. All these little incremental things are finally coming to fruition, and it’s because of the volunteers and the board—there’s only so much I can do. [Babes In Toyland’s] Lori Barbero’s on the board, and she comes in and bartends, and pretty much every member of the board has been very active. We’re constantly trying to figure out better ways of doing fundraising, and we’ve got some really exciting ideas about artist residency programs.”

Mozena’s not new to this business: He opened the Nomad Bar, booked music at Palmer’s Bar, and served as music director at Patrick’s Cabaret. And the Hook’s operations manager, Louie Dunlap, isn’t just a Palmer’s alum—he hails from a famed Minneapolis musical family. Dunlap’s mother, Chrissie, booked First Avenue and the 7th St. Entry in the ’80s; his father, Slim, was a member of the Replacements; and sister Emily holds down guitar spots in Rude Girl, Whale in the Thames, and the 99ers. Add former Harriet Brewing/Papa Charlie’s booker Jesse Brodd and KFAI-FM DJ/publicist Jackson Buck to the mix, and you’ve got an impressive veteran music biz team that’s just getting going.

“This thing was really born of Chris giving me a ride home every night from Palmer’s—he was the one with the car,” says Dunlap. “We were just like, ‘How can we help artists without seeming like scummy club owners?,’ which we’ve all worked for—many. How do you get the bands money and stay alive?

“The nonprofit model just really worked best for us. I don’t want to say anything bad about the other clubs in town, but they take most of the money. And I’ve always thought that no one’s here to see me; they’re here to see Budweiser or the band, so they should get the money. It just seems fair. It’s been fun. We just want to help everybody, man. We want everybody to have a fun place to play. If you bring in 150 people, you get the money.”

The Minnehaha-Lake area is a newly vibrant neighborhood, with shops and restaurants popping up every other block, and, now, the Hook offering a consistently impressive live music docket. Its first year has featured regulars like Charlie Parr, Erik Koskinen, and Paul Bergen’s Astronauts of Rhythm and Sound, but also Latin dance nights, a Morel mushroom festival, and the 7th Annual Roots, Rock, and Deep Blues Festival. Coming September 8 is the club’s one-year anniversary celebration featuring a potluck, corn boil, and hog roast at a multi-band party headlined by Poverty Hash and the Toxenes. But the calendar isn’t all local, all the time.

“We have Lavender Country coming up in September, and that should be really interesting,” says chief sound engineer Matt Amundsen. “They released their first album in 1972 as the first openly gay country album, and it was reissued by a label a couple years ago and the guy’s having kind of a second career, so that should be great.”

“We don’t have TVs or pinball,” says Dunlap. “We’re here for the bands and for you to meet your neighbors, and that’s all there is to do and that’s all there should be to do.”

“When the opportunity arose to fire up a new nonprofit that was more music-focused as a form of performance art than an after-thought, we jumped at it,” says Mozena. “We’ve got a pretty cool rental arrangement that let us get our legs under us, and we’ve been able to make it this far. The first year was just getting by, just surviving, figuring it out as we go. We’re cautiously optimistic that some day there will be some organizations or state agencies that believe in what we’re doing enough to help financially fund it. Time will tell.”


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